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Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, David Keys. Arrow Books, London, 1999.

Well, this was an interesting book with an interesting hypothesis...

The gist of the book is that this volcano blew up on Java or Sumatra in the middle of the sixth century AD, causing nuclear winter and all sorts of other crises and, in the words of the author, "realigning" world history.

I'm not quite sure what he means by "realign". Most of the book is given over to detailing sociopolitical developments in all parts of the world (except sub-Saharan Africa, I noticed) during the sixth through eighth centuries, and showing how they could all date back to this one specific datable event.

I think some of his evidence is pretty strong, but in a lot of places he seems to be really stretching his theory. Some of the events he describes look like they have a pretty direct correlation to some kind of a cataclysmic event -- droughts and storms, even maybe the outbreak of epidemic disease caused by moving populations of rodents and humans. But then there are all of these "nation-forming" political issues he brings up. I think he has a valid point that many of these political issues (especially the ones that end in conflict) are due to movements of large groups of people, but I'm just not sure that there can be said to be any kind of a strong correlation between these events and his beloved volcano.

But let's move away from parts of the world for which there are written records for a minute. He talks a lot about the Peruvian and Mesoamerican civilizations as well. Some of this stuff I remembered from my Mesoamerican Archaeology class, and he even mentioned my prof's favorite site, Cholula. So I had already learned about the burning of Teotihuacan, and we had discussed (in this class) various possible reasons for the downfall and eventual end of this particular city-state. Now in comes David Keys, full of vivid descriptions of peasant revolt due to famine and a violent, bloody overthrow of the status quo, as though he can say with absolute certainty that his version is exactly what happened. Furthermore, and conveniently for his theory, he pushed back the date for the fall of Teotihuacan by some two centuries, citing the vagaries of radio-carbon dating. Then there were his descriptions of various Mesoamerican priests and elites in their finery. He didn't say something like, "Based on murals, pottery, and grave goods, archaeologists believe that the Mesoamerican elites would have dressed like this". He says things like, "Dressed in this and this, with this kind of a headdress, the priests would have performed this rite". I just don't think that descriptions of this kind belong in a work of non-fiction. (Another thing which doesn't really belong in non-fiction is exclamation points at the ends of sentences, and Keys makes liberal use of them! Maybe it makes his evidence sound more exciting!)

Keys relies on vagaries in radio-carbon dating and non-western record-keeping to make a lot of things fit his theory. I can appreciate that this is his pet theory, and he wants to make everything fit it, but I am not totally convinced. He could be on the right track -- his evidence may all be valid. I will wait to jump on the bandwagon until I have seen several more essays or books supporting the same hypothesis.

Score: Two Pints

The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know his World and himself Daniel J. Boorstin. Vintage Books, New York, 1983.

I just finished slogging through this book after probably about a month and a half. I finished the first two parts in probably about a week, then took the rest of the time on the other two parts. This is very unusual for me -- usually I find a book so good I can't put it down, and finish it within a week, or I find it uninteresting enough that I can put it down, but then don't pick it up again. With this book, the first two parts were so interesting that I couldn't put it down. The third part was not very interesting, but I thought I would stick with it because maybe the fourth part would be interesting. The fourth part started out interesting, then got boring, but by then I had conceived of this grim determination to finish it no matter how much it hurt.

The first part of the book was about time, and the various cumulative efforts that have been made throughout history which led up to our present methods of measuring time. There was everything in this part from early efforts on the part of Egyptians and Sumerians to medieval clock building to atomic clocks, but it told a cohesive story. The second part was similarly written, but it was about world exploration and longitude. Both of these parts not only chronicled the (mostly) Western contributions to knowledge that got us where we are today, but also examined what the Muslims and the Chinese were doing in terms of those areas of knowledge and offered explanations as to why they developed in different directions from the Western developments or why they ceased to develop.

The third part of the book was a hodgepodge of Natural History. Where the first two parts took a specific development and followed them through from earliest times, the third part took all of Natural History as its subject -- geology, physics, chemistry, biology. If Boorstin had chosen one story and followed it all the way through, say, from Aristotle to Medieval Bestiaries to Leeuwenhoek and his microscope to microbiology and genetic engineering, I think this part would have been much more effective.

One interesting issue that came out of this third part was the debate between Newton and Leibniz as to who had invented Calculus. When I took calculus in high school I learned that both of them invented it independently around the same time, end of story. Boorstin elaborates the story to show that Newton, from his position as the President of the Royal Society, was able to discredit Leibniz and make it look as though Leibniz had basically copied from Newton and claimed it as his own invention, when in fact that was not the case. This sort of story is the reason I am interested in Intellectual Property Law.

Anyway, back to the book, the fourth part started out quite promisingly, as the story of books, from the earliest papyrus scrolls through the invention of the printing press and moveable type, including information on why the Muslims and oriental peoples didn't take the same sort of steps in their transmission of knowledge. However, that was done by the middle of the fourth part, and once again there was just this whole mixture of stuff about the social sciences, economics, archaeology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, the works. Some of these areas of knowledge received five or six chapters, but towards the end it seemed as though Boorstin was racing through as many subject areas as he could before he ran out of chapters. At the end of the book, there wasn't any kind of conclusion or summary, it just ended randomly with architecture or something like that, with no final overarching statements.

I'm sure this book was quite carefully researched, and it takes the approach to history that I was taught as the newest, most "correct" approach when I took history in University. It covers all manner of subject areas, some more successfully than others. It gets two pints. The first pint is served in a pint glass, but the second one is served as a taster flight with a bewildering array of beers, such that even though you're sure they all taste quite nice, you can't keep any of them straight and feel kind of dissatisfied with them when you're done.

Score: Two Pints

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